Sunday, June 9, 2019


DRAGON LADY – The Many Lives and Deaths of ANNA MAY WONG.

Writer Helen Yotis-Patterson, Director: Michael Fulcher. Musical Director. Andrew Patterson. Original songs by Simon Hall and Andrew Patterson. Featuring Fiona Choi as Anna May Wong. The Space Theatre. Adelaide Cabaret Festival Adelaide Festival Centre June 7-8  2019.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Fiona Choi as Anna May Wong
Photo: Matt Kimpton. Verve Portraits
Few may have heard of or remember American Chinese actress and singer, Anna May Wong. Hers is a fascinating tale of  humble beginnings as the poor daughter of a Chinese laundry operator in LA before her rise to stardom as a Hollywood film actress. Inevitably cast in oriental roles, she worked alongside the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. Her decline in popularity forced her to reinvent herself  as a stage actress in Berlin. A victim of ethnic prejudice from Westerners and Orientals alike and spurned by China, Anna May Wong’s  life is a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows in which Chinse ethnicity is regarded as only skin deep by her cultural homeland and as a deterrent to roles that were assumed by white actors made up as Chinese. The faces of Luise Rainer, who deprived Wong of the lead role opportunity in The Good earth, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Scarlett Johannsen flash up on the screen.  Wong, born in the Year of the Dragon and imbued with the spirit of resilience and defiance constantly re-invented herself  in her perpetual bid for professional and personal survival. Dragon Lady - The Many Lives and Deaths of Anna May Wong is a stirring saga of survival, appearing as a pervasive prejudice of its time, but serving as a sober reminder of the ongoing struggle to preserve one’s cultural identity in the face of ignorance and prejudice.
Fiona Choi as Anna May Wong. Photo: Matt Kimpton
Dragon Lady – The Many Lives of Anna May Wong follows a traditional structure of an account of Wong’s fascinating life chronologically presented by writer Helen Yotis Patterson interspersed with projected images of the time and her experiences and songs from the period, sung with charm and feeling by Fiona Choi. Choi captures the essence of Wong’s struggle, her need to move on, despite the obstacles set in her way to thwart her ambition. There is a matter of fact pragmatism to Choi’s performance. She accepts Wong’s fate as a natural consequence of stereotypical attitudes of the era with a suggestion that the struggles persist today as actors confront the heavy price of ambition and the bitter sting of cultural rejection. In her films, which included her first talking and singing picture Tow of the Sea and The Thief of Baghdad with Douglas Fairbanks, Wong’s characters died many times. With more lives than a cat, Wong bounced back and Choi with director Michael Fulcher and musical director Andrew Patterson presents a strong woman ahead of her time and yet compelled to rely on her resourcefulness to overcome the obstacles endemic to the industry and the age.

Dragon Lady receives its World Premiere at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. It is a fascinating story, performed with charm by Choi, but worthy of a more developed stage or screen  work. It is a work of  interest and information waiting to be revealed as an absorbing and moving drama of Anna May Wong’s fascinating life.